JASPER — For the first time this postseason, Kelli Whitaker took a seat.
With her players and their parents flooding the court late Saturday night, the New Palestine volleyball coach sat down along the sideline, a place she has customarily bypassed throughout her Dragons’ unprecedented playoff run.
Invested in every play and every point, she admittedly prefers to walk, stand or crouch on the floor over the cushy comfort of the coach’s chair.
However, after her Class 3A No. 7 Dragons lost 3-0 to defending state champion No. 2 Providence (34-5) in the Jasper Semistate championship, she was ready. But not for teary despondency.
Instead, the enthusiastic buzz, which carried the Dragons to new heights this fall, remained uninterrupted.
“What a ride,” Whitaker reminisced, pausing momentarily as supporters streamed over to shake her hand or offer a hug. “We had a lot of history-making moments this season. It’s incredible. What a fun season. I’m just blessed to be their coach.”
The same can be said of Whitaker, Dragons’ junior outside hitter Allison Dennemann remarked. If there was a secret to the team’s breakout postseason, it unquestionably centered around their coach.
In those tense moments, Whitaker, a New Palestine alum, kept her players focused. When the odds were stacked against them, the fourth-year coach was the glue.
“She’s just awesome,” said Dennemann, a University of the Pacific recruit. “I love her to death. She always finds a way to motivate us no matter what. She always finds a way to stay excited. She’s the reason we stuck together the whole way through.”
Where the Dragons (27-11) finished was unimaginable, even to Whitaker.
For the first time in 27 years, the Dragons captured a sectional championship by sweeping through the Indianapolis Crispus Attucks tournament in nine straight games, including a 3-0 semifinal win against No. 13 Bishop Chatard.
What unfolded next set a new program watermark as New Palestine knocked off No. 11 Cardinal Ritter 3-1 in the regional for its first-ever title.
On Saturday afternoon, the Dragons went one step farther, claiming the program’s first semistate match win, 3-2, in a nail biter against Northview, which had won its fourth consecutive regional prior.
“I think we exceeded everyone’s expectations of our team. I think we even exceeded our own,” Whitaker said. “They believe now. They believe that we can beat great teams and can make a run in the tournament.”
That belief powered them to within one win of a state finals appearance, the team’s first final four in history, though not surprising to those outside the program.
“Honestly, we’ve really kind of been watching them all season long, thinking possibly they could be a matchup at some point,” Providence head coach Terri Purichia said. “I have so much respect for Dennemann. She is such a talented player. She’s crafty. Her shots are great. Her vision of the court is remarkable. They are a great team.”
At times during the match, Dennemann lived up to Purichia’s assessment.
Losing its first set against Providence 25-12, New Palestine showed their grit led by Dennemann, nearly evening up the match with an impressive 27-25 defeat in the second.
The Dragons trailed 19-11 before stringing together a 9-0 run to cut the deficit to 22-19. New Palestine tied the match twice —25-all off a Dennemann kill — before the Pioneers finally pulled away.
Dennemann fired a team-high 17 kills against Providence while fellow junior Mia Long had six with 15 digs. Dennemann had 13 digs, and sophomores Lydia Jones and Audrey VanderWal each contributed 10 versus the Pioneers hard-hitting lineup.
In 2012, Providence was state runner-up in Class 2A. In 2013 and 2014, they won the 2A titles and captured the 3A crown last season. This year, they have defeated every state champion from 2015, including perennial powerhouse Cathedral, en route to potential fourth straight.
Six players on their roster have 100 or more kills with three at 200 plus. They advanced to their fifth straight state finals with a 25-9 win against New Palestine in the third set.
“In the first set, I think we were nervous because of who Providence is and all the success that they’ve had. The second set showed how much we believed in ourselves,” Whitaker said. “Unfortunately, we just couldn’t match them. They are dominant. Every single hitter is fantastic. They have great defense, but our girls have nothing to be upset about. (Providence is) a great program.”
The Dragons are better from the experience.
While losing two key starters in seniors Kara Morris and Audrey Edwards, they return five next season and even higher aspirations.
“We gained a lot of confidence as a team from this. I mean, who expected us to be here right now? No one,” Long said. “Our goal at the beginning of the season was to win sectional. I’m so proud of us to get to this point. I can’t wait for next season and see what we can do.”
With Whitaker at the helm, anything is possible.
“She’s done a fantastic job. I’ve been coaching for 18 years, and New Pal did not have a program before she took over,” Purichia said. “Her kids are very skilled. They’re extremely well coached. Hats off to her. I thought they had a great team and a great game plan against us.”
Class 3A Jasper Semistate
No. 2 Providence 3, No. 7 New Palestine 0
NP stat leaders: Allison Dennemann 17 kills, 13 digs; Mia Long 15 digs, 6 kills; Kara Morris 23 assists, 8 digs; Lydia Jones 10 digs; Audrey Edwards 10 digs.